Over the last few days at Education Week we have learned much about the gospel, but what exactly is the gospel? The word comes from the Old English word godspell—god meaning good and spell meaning story or news. The gospel then means good news, but what is the good news? It is Jesus Christ. He came. He lived a perfect life. He completed the Atonement. He lives and because of Him we will all be resurrected and have the opportunity to live with God, and loved ones eternally.
These realities and blessings are good news indeed, but surely we have more good news, surely this includes the restoration, the first principles and ordinances, priesthood keys that have been restored in our day, and temples. Yes, we are blessed to have a broad spectrum of good news to appreciate, to value, and to share. Today I would like to focus on one aspect of good news that has been called in sacred places, the law of the gospel.
I asked a teenager once, “What is the law of the gospel?” He said, “Commandments, more commandments and more commandments!” Obviously, keeping commandments is part of living the gospel, but is that all it is? Once we covenant to obey and sacrifice, then are we simply given more items to be checked off our Mormon to-do list? Like this teenage friend, many associate the gospel with a proliferation of rules, but there is much more to it than standards and regulations. Remember the gospel is good news, not just more rules!
In Alma 12:32 we read, “Therefore God gave unto them commandments, after having made known unto them the plan of redemption.” The restoration of the gospel was not a restoration of rules. It was a restoration of reasons. The Ten Commandments actually made it through the apostasy; it was the reasons to keep the commandments that were lost and, as Alma taught, those reasons are found within the plan of redemption.
The law of the gospel then has to do with our choices, but more important it extends to our motives. It has to do with the Law of Moses, but extends to the higher law taught in the Sermon on the Mount. The law of the gospel then has to do with controlling our external behavior, but extends to educating our internal desires. It has to do with who we are, but extends to who we can become. My friend Brett Sanders says, “When we truly understand the good news of the gospel, we realize that standards become the framework that leads to Godliness.”
The law of the gospel is associated with the charge to avoid any unholy and impure act. Why? Because ultimately our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ want to make us holy and pure. They invite us into Their holy house. They dress us in pure white clothing, and then They instruct us to avoid light mindedness and loud laugher, to refrain from speaking ill of our leaders, and to refuse to take the name of God in vain. Those are the rules. What’s the reason? By complying with the rules, we take daily steps toward becoming more like our Father and more like Jesus Christ.
Avoid Light-Mindedness and Loud Laughter
Avoiding light-mindedness and loud laughter does not mean we have to live like monks in the Middle Ages who were not allowed to smile or laugh and were required to inflict pain on themselves when they did. No way! I love to laugh!
Why was Cinderella so bad at sports? Because she had a pumpkin for coach and she ran away from the ball.
What did one snowman said to the other snowman? “Smells like carrots.”
Why did Beethoven get rid of his chickens? Because all they said was, “Bach, Bach, Bach, Bach.”
Being light-minded doesn’t mean you tell too many jokes. Being light-minded means failing to take seriously things that should be taken seriously, including our Church duties and temple covenants. Loud laughter is not referring to a specific volume, but rather to inappropriate laughter at any volume. Avoiding both is the rule. What’s the reason? God and Jesus want us to value what they value so we can experience the joy they experience.
I will never forget sitting several rows in front of two men in a plane bound for Salt Lake City. One said to the other, “Do you think we ought to go see the blankity-blank Mormon temple?” The other responded, “You idiot. They won’t let you in the blankity-blank temple. You have to go to a blankity-blank visitors’ center.” He then proceeded to tell a “funny” story about how he and a buddy had once visited there and seen the statue of Christ with His arms extended. Instead of being moved spiritually, these two had plotted about how they might be able to tie a yo-yo to Jesus’ finger and take a picture without being caught. I was discouraged to hear these men talk so sacrilegiously. They, like the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross, knew not what they did.1 These men were not laughing loudly, but they were laughing inappropriately about a sacred representation of our Savior.
To many people, these men would have appeared happy enough. However God and Jesus are not interested in or fooled by appearances. They care about what we feel deep down and over time. My wife and I have just finished having a little mini family reunion. Having all of our five grandchildren together we went out boating. We went out on a lake and saw a group of young single adults. They looked like they were very “happy” with their alcohol, immodest bathing suits, and with their tattoos. As they laughed and swore, they looked “happy.” Drunks can appear happy on the surface and in the moment, but the façade soon fades and is replaced by regret, self-loathing, and misery. That’s what you don’t see when they are together with their friends. By refusing to mock that which is sacred2 and laugh inappropriately, our perspective is broadened and we learn to see as God sees.
God told Adam and Eve, “Be happy. Find joy!” There is no happiness or joy in being sacrilegious, disrespectful, or cruel. There is no lasting happiness or joy in the shallow ways of the world. Joy Lundberg and Janice Kapp Perry wrote a beautiful song and the lyrics say,
"The peace I feel,
My joy in sacred things
Surpasses all the world could ever bring"3
Only by living the gospel can we truly be happy. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has called the gospel “the ultimate formula for happiness.”4 Similarly, Elder Neal A. Maxwell wrote, “Zion . . . is where the pure in heart dwell and where there is joy of countenance. By contrast, in hell there are no smiles!”5
President Heber C. Kimball taught, “God is the happiest of men. I am perfectly satisfied that my Father and my God is a cheerful, pleasant, lively, and good-natured being. He is a jovial person and a beautiful man.”6 As we fill our lives with suitable lightheartedness and positive, appropriate laughter we find the happiness that God enjoys. It will show in our countenances and we become more like Him.
Refrain from Speaking Ill of Our Leaders
Along with avoiding light-mindedness and inappropriate laughter, we are charged to refrain from speaking negatively of our leaders. That’s the rule. What’s the reason? Neither spirituality nor self-esteem can ever be found in tearing others down, but both are inherent in building others up. If we are ever to truly be like God, we must lift others for that is what He does. Thus, the charge to refrain from speaking negatively of our leaders also becomes a charge to support them—to raise our hands to the square and wholeheartedly sustain them even when others are screaming, “No!” in General Conference. This isn’t a charge to follow blindly; rather, it is a charge to demonstrate faith in the Lord by showing faith in those He has called. By so doing leaders are uplifted, but we are also uplifted. We also grow and mature emotionally and spiritually.
Not speaking ill of leaders extends to not being easily offended. No bishop, Relief Society President, or stake president wakes up in the morning thinking, “So, who can I offend today?” It’s never on somebody’s to-do list. Yet offences come. Mistakes are made and feelings are hurt. Our leaders are human. Let’s all cut them a little slack. Most of us will never be called to serve at the general levels of Church leadership, but let’s cut those who are—past and present—some slack too.
Not speaking ill of leaders extends to not believing rumors and hearsay without researching issues for ourselves. We live in a day when anyone can publish anything on the Internet. What makes this dangerous is that some people assume it’s all true, accurate, and unbiased.
How many of you have ever had your name in a newspaper? How many can say the article was completely accurate? Not as many hands this time. If the few times our names have shown up in print have been accompanied by mistakes, don’t you think we should be a little slower to jump to conclusions when we read something about our Church leaders that doesn’t seem quite right?
Whenever I hear something negative about Church leaders past or present I ask myself some questions: “Is it hearsay? Is it out of context? Is it an unsupported generalization, a case of mudslinging, or an exaggeration?” Only when I rule those options out do I begin to ask myself if it might be true.
Church history can be complex and sometimes things can even seem strange, but so does much of the Old Testament and yet I don’t see anyone tossing out the Bible or leaving the Church because of the Song of Solomon. We’ve got to realize that sometimes history has to be seen not through the lens of the present, but in the context of the past. Many young people grow up in Mormon homes where words such as seer stone have been explained in family home evening. Some of them even know that Urim and Thummim are in the running for the names of the next set of twins to be born in the family. These are words we are familiar with; they’re words we grew up with. For others these terms are new and they can be confusing.
While serving as a mission president in Chile, I spoke to a group of young single adults, many of whom were recent converts to the Church. They had seen information posted on the Internet about how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon and they had questions. One asked, "What is the Urim and Thummim?”
I said, “From what I understand it is two stones fastened together that functioned like a pair of glasses through which Joseph could look and see the text in English which he would then read to his scribes.” The audience sat in stunned silence. One said, “You mean to tell me that we are supposed to tell our friends that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with a pair of magic glasses?”
I responded, “How many have seen the movie National Treasure?” It was a popular movie at the time and almost every hand went up. I said, “You mean to tell me that there is an invisible map on the back of the Declaration of Independence that can be seen only through special glasses made by Benjamin Franklin?” If we would all suspend our doubt and cynicism for as long as it took for us to watch that movie, perhaps we would realize that in this case fact is more fascinating than fiction.
Another young adult said, “But I read that Joseph Smith didn’t even use the Urim and Thummim most of the time. Most of the translation was done with a seer stone. What’s that?”
I answered, “From what I understand it was a stone about the size of an egg. It was a dark color and had a smooth surface on which words would appear.”
One person said, “We’re supposed to tell our friends that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with a magic rock? How is anyone supposed to believe that?”
I said, “How many of you have cell phones? They are about the size of an egg, are a dark color, and have a smooth surface on which words appear. How is anyone supposed to believe that? We may not be able to explain exactly how a cell phone works, but that doesn’t keep us from using one.”
“But President Wilcox,” said another, “This article said Joseph Smith would put the seer stone in a hat. Why did he do that?”
I replied, “Just walk outside on a sunny day and you’ll see dozens of people covering their cell phones with their hands so they can see them better. They wish they had hats!”
Let’s cut Joseph Smith some slack. I have heard lots of criticisms of that prophet—but few that weren’t first leveled against Christ Himself. Two thousand years of criticism and a Broadway play called Jesus Christ Superstar have not changed the truth about our Lord. Two hundred years of criticism and a Broadway play called The Book of Mormon have not changed the reality of Joseph Smith’s divine call.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson has said, “The Savior has not had among mortals a more faithful witness, a more obedient disciple, a more loyal advocate than Joseph Smith.”7 What a commendation! When we meet Joseph Smith as one day we will, may we live so that the person introducing us will say, “Joseph, you never had a more faithful witness, a more obedient believer, a more loyal advocate than the person standing before you right now.” That is a moment for which I strive. Joseph no longer needs body guards, but I can and will be his character guard.
Karl G. Maesar, the man who established the Brigham Young Academy, was first drawn to the Church in his homeland of Germany after reading an anti-Mormon book. Why? Because he recognized that all the negative things he was reading could not be accurate. He sought and found the truth and spent the rest of his life loyally defending the Church of Jesus Christ and its leaders.8 Who can accuse Karl G. Maesar, one of the most brilliant minds and greatest educators of all time, of being a mindless sheep following prophet leaders? His was a choice made not because he was blind, but because he had an extraordinary ability to see. May we follow his example of intellectual integrity and defend those whom the Lord has called.
Have our leaders always been perfect? Of course not. But I tend to agree with the father of President Henry B. Eyring who reasoned, “If they [are] good enough for God… they [are] good enough for [me].”9 We have just lost two beloved apostles. We will miss them both. In our next General Conference we will probably sustain two new apostles. We don’t know yet who they, are but I’ll tell you this: I will lift my arm to the square. I will sustain those men –whether I know them, or not – with all my heart, with all my strength, and with all my testimony because I know the God who will call them, and I love the prophet through whom they will be called. They will have my complete support, and they will have my complete love.
Amid the confusion created when philosophies of men are mingled with scripture, God will always send true messengers, just as He did to Adam and Eve. As we learn to seek them, to recognize them, and to be loyal to them as they did, then we are better able to lift others and that’s how we will become more like God and more like Jesus.
Refuse to Take the Lord’s Name in Vain
In addition to avoiding light-mindedness and loud laughter and refraining from speaking negatively of the Lord’s chosen, we are commanded that we should not take the Lord’s name in vain. Obviously this means we should not swear using the name of the Lord. That’s the rule. What’s the reason? Because ultimately He wants true disciples who refuse to take His name in vain—not only because it is so sacred, but also because it has become written on their hearts. Blasphemy is usually the height of thoughtlessness—literally. Most blasphemers do not think at all about what they are saying. In most cases, expletives escape their mouths without ever having passed through their minds. Their flippant words are knee-jerk reactions rather than careful and conscious choices. The Lord desires sincere thoughts, language, and actions.
But there’s another way of looking at taking the Lord’s name in vain. When we partake of the sacrament we renew a covenant to take Christ’s name upon us. When we do so out of habit rather than as a sincere choice, are we taking His name in vain? My friend Taylor Halverson told me that the Hebrew word that was translated in our scriptures as vain means meaningless and empty. He said, “Perhaps the commandment in Exodus 20:7 should read thou shalt not take upon thyself the name of God with empty and meaningless intent.”
When we give up the hope Christ offers through His Atonement, are we taking the Lord’s name in vain? Are we rendering His grace, His divine help, as useless, empty, and meaningless in our lives?
One young man said, “There is no chance for me. I have gone too far too often. I have let God down too many times. I am not worthy of His love or help.” This young man was discouraged because he would make progress for a while, feel better, and then slip and decide all his efforts meant nothing. Argh! It sounds like my diet.
I explained that sometimes our growth and progress – and my diet – are like a game my friends and I would play on long bus rides home from debate trips in high school. It was called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Without breaking the rhythm of slapping our knees and clapping our hands we had to call out someone else’s name or number. Anyone who made a mistake had to go to the back of the bus and slowly start moving toward the front again one seat at a time. Inevitably, when I had almost made it to the front I would mess up and get sent to the back. I felt like I was making no progress. What I realize now is that wherever I was sitting on the bus, the bus was still continually taking me toward home.
In the Book of Mormon we read about people who loved God so much they had “no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”10 Does this mean they were never enticed again? Surely not, since that would have limited their agency. Does this mean they never made another mistake or had another bad day? No. They probably messed up just like we do, since they were living in the same fallen world where we live. The issue isn’t whether or not they slipped, but that they didn’t want to slip. The renewed people of King Benjamin probably sinned again (moved to the back of the bus), but they most certainly recognized the mistakes they had made, repented quickly, and kept trying. They lived in a constant spirit of repentance—continually renewing their covenants. In other words, they stayed on the bus as it moved steadily toward its destination.11 Enduring to the end does not mean living without errors. Enduring to the end means enduring in the covenant despite errors—remaining in the bus and continuing to play the game no matter where we currently sit, or how many times we are taken to the back.
In the hymn “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” we sing, “Thus on to eternal perfection the honest and faithful will go.”12 Notice it doesn’t say, “Thus on to eternal perfection the flawless and faultless will go.” Worthiness is honesty with self, God, and priesthood leaders. Worthiness is faithfully continuing to try as long as positive changes may take. The lie of this generation is, “We cannot change.” Not only does that lie deny the upward reach within each one of us – divinely placed, but it also denies the power of Jesus Christ—not His existence, but His power in our lives. President Henry B. Eyring has said, “One great burst of effort won’t be enough. Only a steady, ever-increasing effort will allow the Lord to take us to higher ground.”13
In sacred temples we make covenants. Then sometimes we surprise ourselves by how quickly we can slip backward despite these promises. We shouldn’t be surprised, however, at how quickly Christ comes to our aid if we seek Him. God, who will not be mocked, does extend a hand to mockers who repent. Trying and slipping and trying again is not mocking God as much as it is honoring Him by using the gift of the Atonement that He and His Son so lovingly provided. Satan claims, with great boldness, to hold covenant breakers in his power. But what power does he have? His power is put on, much like an apron. It is not internal; it is external. It is self-proclaimed and manmade. He has power only if we give it to him. He cannot stop us from determining to start again. Christ’s broken heart is more powerful than our broken promises and all of Satan’s blustering and empty threats.
We are not bad people because we have bad habits. We are good people trying to develop good habits. When I slip, instead of saying “I have failed,” I try to say “I have not yet succeeded.” I was reading my journal the other day and it said, “Oh, I’m up to 220 lbs. and now I’m like, “I wish I was down to 220 lbs.” Instead of saying “Look how far there is to go,” I try to say “Look how far God and Christ have brought me.” Instead of saying “I can’t keep my covenants,” I try to say “I can’t do it now, but with heaven’s help I can learn.” Instead of saying “I just got sent back to the last seat on the bus,” I try to say “At least I am still playing the game!”
There is a Spanish saying: “Sin prisa, pero sin pausa.” (Without great hurry, but also without a pause.”) West Africans use a similar phrase: “Slowly by slowly, small by small.”14 We might say “Slow and steady wins the race.” We don’t have to reach our goals by Friday. We have until Sunday and then the next Sunday and the next—each time we have the opportunity to partake of the sacrament.
In sacred sacrament moments, can we really promise to never again make a mistake? Not when we know full well we will be back again the very next week needing the sacrament as much as ever. Rather, as we partake of the sacrament, we show we are willing to take upon ourselves His name, willing to always remember Him, and willing to keep His commandments.15 We often feel we have to qualify for the very ordinance and grace that make us worthy. Such a focus on worthiness keeps us forever looking backward. By focusing instead on willingness, we look forward.
Elder John H. Groberg, who lived many years here in Idaho, taught, “What does it mean to partake of the sacrament worthily? Or how do we know if we are unworthy? If we desire to improve (which is to repent) and are not under priesthood restriction, then . . . we are worthy.”16
“I’m not worthy,” “I’m not worthy to pray,” “I’m not worthy to go to church,” “I’m not worthy to partake of the sacrament,” “I’m not worthy to go on a mission,” “I’m not worthy to go to the temple.” We don’t partake of the sacrament because we are worthy, we partake of the sacrament because we are willing to become worthy. We don’t go to church because we are perfect, we go because we are willing to be perfected, and we certainly don’t go on a mission, or to the temple because we’ve “made it” in our Mormon culture. We go to these sacred environments because it is there that the Lord is making us. It is there that we allow him to continue to shape, and mold, and guide, and help us. As we renew our covenants, we are committing not to be perfect like Christ immediately, but to be willing to be perfected in Christ over time.
Time is the medium through which the power of the Atonement is made manifest in our lives. One little glass of water may not make much of a difference, but many little cups of water over time create the Grand Canyon. One little piece of bread may not make much of difference, but Jesus can bless bread, a few loafs to feed thousands, and surely He can bless the bread that we partake of week after week and weakness after weakness to bless and to nourish us as well. In Doctrine and Covenants 50:40 we read, “Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace.” This is the growth process King Benjamin called retaining a remission of our sins “from day to day,"17 or we could say from Sunday to Sunday.
God will never give up on us even when we feel like giving up on ourselves. The love and grace of God and Christ are not bestowed like prizes for the righteous. They are the source of righteousness. They are not awards for the worthy. They are the means of worthiness. In Ether 12:27 we read the familiar words, “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me.” As we speak the name of God more thoughtfully, take upon ourselves the name of Christ more sincerely, and endure in our covenants, we will feel His transforming power and we will become, slowly but surely, more like Him.
Thank heaven for events like Education Week. Here we have all learned more about the good news we call the gospel. May we leave more committed to live the law of the gospel and each charge associated with it. I know God and Jesus live. I know They love us, and I know They lead us in this Church today. Where would we be without that knowledge? We would be as lost and as lame as the world that surrounds us, and mocks us, but we know what we know! We know the God we worship. We know the leaders He appoints and sustains, and we know the spirit that bears witness to our spirits that we are not wrong. I say this and leave this testimony in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
1. See Luke 23:34.
2. See Helaman 4:12.
3. Janice Kapp Perry. "Learn of Me" on the album I Walk By Faith. Provo, UT: Prime Recordings, 1986.
4. Dieter F. Uchtdorf. "The Ways of the Disciple,” Ensign, May 2009, 75.
5. Neal A. Maxwell. Of One Heart [Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 1975], 37.
6. Heber C. Kimball. Journal of Discourses, 4:222.
7. D. Todd Christofferson. "The Atonement and the Resurrection.” Religious Educator, 7(1), 11.
8. See A. LeGrand Richards, Called to Teach [Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center], 2014.
9. Robert I. Eaton and Henry J. Eyring, I Will Lead You Along [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013], 28.
10. Mosiah 5:2.
11. See D&C 109:21.
12. Hymn 19.
13. Henry B. Eyring. Choose Higher Ground [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2013], 244.
14. See Linda K. Burton, “Turning Our Hearts to the Voice of the Spirit” CES Devotional for Young Adults, March 2, 2014, Brigham Young University-Idaho.
15. See Moroni 4:3; D&C 46:9.
16. John H. Groberg. The Beauty and Importance of the Sacrament,” Ensign, May 1989, 38, emphasis added.